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Riding the rails in India

An insider's guide to taking the train in India

On a recent train journey across rural central India on my way from a walking safari in Satpura national park and searching for tigers in Bandhavgarh I was given to reflecting on the staggering size and efficiency of Indian Railways.

Chugging along at 40mph we were hardly attempting to break the world land speed record but our progress was sure but steady and we departed and arrived at our destination on time. Impressive when you consider that from the first short line laid in 1853 the network has grown to about 71,000 miles of track.

More than 25 million passengers travel on Indian railways every day and it’s one of the world’s largest employers.  There’s everything from tiny stations on old narrow gauge lines seemingly in the middle of nowhere to teeming terminals in the cities like Bombay’s (Mumbai) CST, formerly known as Victoria Terminus. For those who have time to stop and take note, it really is the most incredible example of high Victorian architecture – important enough for it to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Travelling by rail is rarely the romantic experience some might imagine but taking the train is not only a convenient and comfortable way of covering large distances, it’s also a real experience in itself. While waiting at the station I sampled some deliciously hot spicy samosas washed down by a glass of steaming chai, was interviewed by a young man practising his English 'what is your good name sir?' (to a woman),  marvelled at wrinkled old porters deftly manoeuvring with impossibly large loads and learned that a paint daubed slogan on a wall urging all to Vote for Cow was more than just idle graffiti.

For those who are unfamiliar with train etiquette in India, guidelines are available. Here are the on board instructions for how to use the seat-back tray table:

Rotate the knob in the other direction
Swing down the snack tray to make it horizontal
Do not put your hand between seat back and snack tray while folding snack tray to avoid injury to yourself

It's a health and safety warning the EU rule-makers would be proud of.

Posted by: Andrea Hulme

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